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Celebrating 150 years of Walt Whitman

The author’s masterpiece ‘Leaves of Grass’ still inspires
/ Source: Reuters

He thought blacks were no more capable than baboons and was a reputed womanizer who may have actually been gay, but 150 years after his masterpiece first hit the shelves, populist poet Walt Whitman is still the rage.

After inspiring a steady stream of books and movies for decades, a wave of exhibits, conferences and even a jazz composition set to his work have emerged in recent months to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his lifelong labor — a collection of poems called “Leaves of Grass.”

Among them is an exhibit at the New York Public Library featuring faded photographs, rare manuscripts and even a lock of Whitman’s golden-brown hair. Titled “I am With You: Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ (1855-2005)” the exhibit opened earlier this month and runs through the beginning of January.

The poetry expressed much of what Whitman publicly championed: a vision of inclusiveness in a changing society. Privately, his views were far less accommodating.

Living in the Civil War era, Whitman’s private musings suggested he believed blacks were inferior and could not be successfully integrated into society, even though he wrote sympathetically of the runaway slave, the exhibit’s curator, Isaac Gewirtz, said.

Whitman even once wrote in a magazine article that blacks were no more capable than baboons, though he crossed off that reference before the article was printed, Gewirtz added.

But all that has failed to put a damper on Whitman’s growing popularity, and today he is widely accepted even by African American authors.

American voiceScholars say his writing helped develop a distinctly American sensibility that remains as relevant today as it did during the Civil War, while others have latched on to the strong sexual undertones in some of his writing and propelled him to the status of gay icon.

“There’s a way in which Whitman has provided a comfort zone in which to consider same-sex love because he is this larger-than-life literary figure,” said Kenneth Price, a University of Nebraska professor. “So he’s somewhat immune to the sharp criticism that might be leveled from some quarters.”

Whitman himself downplayed any suggestion of his own homosexuality in his writings.

Instead, he earned notoriety — and the threat of censorship — for his unabashed description of heterosexual intimacy in a later volume of “Leaves of Grass,” which included references to his impregnating many women.

None of that helped book sales at the time. Today though, Whitman is viewed as something of a U.S. national poet.

“I think of Whitman as being for American culture something akin to what Shakespeare is for England or Goethe for Germany or Cervantes for Spain,” said Price. “He’s this national figure who articulated something fundamental about American consciousness.”

Later writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were captivated by Whitman’s message. More recently, jazz pianist Fred Hersch composed a piece set to Leaves of Grass, while Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham’s latest novel was also inspired by Whitman.

Yellowing manuscript pages on display offer a glimpse into the reasons behind the continuing fascination: Whitman wrote of simple working class pursuits like riding the Brooklyn ferry and wrote it simply, in words equally at home on the streets of New York as they were in a poet’s notebook.

“Whitman was a poet 100 years before his time,” said Gewirtz, adding that his direct, conversation style was “very new in English poetry.”

At a time when American writers sounded little different from their British counterparts -- sometimes even referring to birds that hadn’t been seen on this side of the Atlantic --Whitman was happy to ditch literary eloquence in favor of gritty working class themes.

In one of the first editions of “Leaves of Grass” on display, Whitman’s portrait gracing the inside cover shuns the ruffle-shirted elegance favored by poets of the day, showing him instead as a simple artisan.

For all his impact on the American literary landscape, Whitman’s star in his homeland never shone during his lifetime as much as it did across the Atlantic, a fact he noted in scratchy black ink in a manuscript on display at the exhibit: ”In the British islands and cities, London, Edinburgh and Dublin, the poet seems to have a more settled state and more appreciative readers than in his own country.”